ListenLarger documents may require additional load time.
The Gale Encyclopedia of Science. Ed. K. Lee Lerner and Brenda Wilmoth Lerner. Vol. 1. 4th ed. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2008. p58-62. From Gale Virtual Reference Library.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning
Full Text: 
Page 58


Aerodynamics is the science of air flow over air planes, cars, buildings, and other objects. Aerodynamic principles are used to find the best ways in which airplanes can get lift, reduce drag, and remain stable by controlling the shape and size of the wing, the angle at which it is positioned with respect to the air stream, and the flight speed. The flight characteristics change at higher altitudes as the surrounding air becomes colder and thinner. The behavior of airflow also changes dramatically at flight speeds close to, and beyond, the speed of sound. The explosion in computational capability has made it possible to understand and exploit the

Page 59  |  Top of Article

Wind tunnel testing of an aircraft model. ( Dr. Gary SettlesScience Source, National Audubon Society CollectionPhoto Researchers, Inc.)

Wind tunnel testing of an aircraft model. (© Dr. Gary Settles/Science Source, National Audubon Society Collection/Photo Researchers, Inc.)

concepts of aerodynamics and to design improved wings for airplanes. Increasingly sophisticated wind tunnels are also available to test new models.

Basic airflow principles

Air properties that influence flow

Airflow is governed by the principles of fluid dynamics that deal with the motion of liquids and gases in and around solid surfaces. The viscosity, density, compressibility, and temperature of the air determine how the air will flow around a building or a plane. The viscosity of a fluid is its resistance to flow. Even though air is 55 times less viscous than water, viscosity is important near a solid surface, since air, like all other fluids, tends to stick to the surface and slow down the flow. A fluid is compressible if its density can be increased by squeezing it into a smaller volume. At flow speeds less than 220 miles per hour [mph] (354 kilometers per hour [km/h]), a third the speed of sound, it can be assumed that air is incompressible for all practical purposes. At speeds closer to that of sound (660 mph [1,622 km/h]), however, the variation in the density of the air must be taken into account. The effects of temperature change also become important at these speeds. A regular commercial airplane, after landing, will feel cool to the touch. The recently retired Concorde jet, which flew at twice the speed of sound, would feel hotter than boiling water when it landed.

Laminar and turbulent flow

Flow patterns of the air may be laminar or turbulent. In laminar, or streamlined, flow, air, at any point in the flow, moves with the same speed in the same direction at all times so that the flow appears to be smooth and regular. The air pattern changes to turbulent flow, which is cloudy and irregular, when the air continually changes speed and direction.

Laminar flow, without viscosity, is governed by Bernoulli’s principle: the sum of the static and dynamic pressures in a fluid remains the same. A fluid at rest in a pipe exerts static pressure on the walls. If the fluid now starts moving, some of the static pressure is converted to dynamic pressure, which is proportional to the square of the speed of the fluid. The faster a fluid moves, the greater its dynamic pressure and the smaller the static pressure it exerts on the sides.

Bernoulli’s principle works well far from the surface. Near the surface, however, the effects of viscosity must be considered since the air tends to stick to the surface, slowing down the flow nearby. Thus, a boundary layer of slow-moving air is formed on the surface of an airplane or automobile. This boundary layer is laminar at the beginning of the flow, but it gets thicker as the air moves along the surface and becomes turbulent after a point.

Numbers used to characterize flow

Airflow is determined by many factors, all of which work together in complicated ways to influence flow. Very often, the effects of factors such as viscosity, speed, and turbulence cannot be separated. Engineers have found smart ways to get around the difficulty of treating such complex situations. They have defined some characteristic numbers, each of which tells something useful about the nature of the flow, by taking several different factors into account.

One such number is the Reynolds number, which is greater for faster flows and denser fluids and smaller for more viscous fluids. The Reynolds number is also higher for flow around larger objects. Flows at lower Reynolds numbers tend to be slow, viscous, and laminar. As the Reynolds number increases, there is a transition from laminar to turbulent flow. The Reynolds number is a useful similarity parameter. This means that flows in completely different situations will behave in the same way as long as the Reynolds number and the shape of the solid surface are the same. If the Reynolds number is kept the same, water moving around a small stationary airplane model will create exactly the same flow patterns as a full-scale airplane of the same shape, flying through the air. This principle makes it possible to test airplane and automobile designs using small-scale models in wind tunnels.

Page 60  |  Top of Article

At speeds greater than 220 mph (354 km/h), the compressibility of air cannot be ignored. At these speeds, two different flows may not be equivalent even if they have the same Reynolds number. Another similarity parameter, the Mach number, is needed to make them similar. The Mach number of an airplane is its flight speed divided by the speed of sound at the same altitude and temperature. This means that a plane flying at the speed of sound has a Mach number of one.

The drag coefficient and the lift coefficient are two numbers that are used to compare the forces in different flow situations. Aerodynamic drag is the force that opposes the motion of a car or an airplane. Lift is the upward force that keeps an airplane afloat against gravity. The drag or lift coefficient is defined as the drag or lift force divided by the dynamic pressure. It is also defined by the area over which the force acts. Two objects with similar drag or lift coefficients experience comparable forces, even when the actual values of the drag or lift force, dynamic pressure, area, and shape are different in the two cases.

Skin friction and pressure drag

There are several sources of drag. The air that sticks to the surface of a car creates a drag force due to skin friction. Pressure drag is created when the shape of the surface changes abruptly, as at the point where the roof of an automobile ends. The drop from the roof increases the space through which the air stream flows. This slows down the flow and, by Bernoulli’s principle, increases the static pressure. The air stream is unable to flow against this sudden increase in pressure, and the boundary layer becomes detached from the surface, creating an area of low-pressure turbulent wake or flow. Since the pressure in the wake is much lower than the pressure in front of the car, a net backward drag or force is exerted on the car. Pressure drag is the major source of drag on blunt bodies. Car manufacturers experiment with vehicle shapes to minimize the drag. For smooth or streamlined shapes, the boundary layer remains attached longer, producing only a small wake. For such bodies, skin friction is the major source of drag, especially if they have large surface areas. Skin friction comprises almost 60% of the drag on a modern airliner.


An airfoil is the two-dimensional cross-section of the wing of an airplane as one looks at it from the side. It is designed to maximize lift and minimize drag. The upper surface of a typical airfoil has a curvature

The angle of attack that generates the most lift depends on many factors including the shape of the airfoil, the velocity of the airflow, and the atmospheric conditions. (Argosy. The Gale Group.)

The angle of attack that generates the most lift depends on many factors including the shape of the airfoil, the velocity of the airflow, and the atmospheric conditions. (Argosy. The Gale Group.)

greater than that of the lower surface. This extra curvature is known as camber. The straight line, joining the front tip or the leading edge of the airfoil to the rear tip or the trailing edge, is known as the chord line. The angle of attack is the angle that the chord line forms with the direction of the air stream.


The stagnation point is the point at which the stream of air moving toward the wing divides into two streams, one flowing above and the other flowing below the wing. Air flows faster above a wing with greater camber, since the same amount of air has to flow through a narrower space. According to Bernoulli’s principle, the faster flowing air exerts less pressure on the top surface, so that the pressure on the lower surface is higher, and there is a net upward force on the wing, creating lift. The camber is varied, using flaps and slats on the wing in order to achieve different degrees of lift during take-off, cruising, and landing.

Since the air flows at different speeds above and below the wing, a large jump in speed will tend to arise when the two flows meet at the trailing edge, leading to a rearward stagnation point on top of the wing. German engineer Wilhelm Kutta (1867-1944) realized that a circulation of air around the wing would ensure smooth flow at the trailing edge. According to the Kutta condition, the strength of the circulation, or the speed of the air around the wing, is exactly as much as is needed to keep the flow smooth at the trailing edge.

Increasing the angle of attack moves the stagnation point down from the leading edge along the lower surface so that the effective area of the upper surface is Page 61  |  Top of Articleincreased. This results in a higher lift force on the wing. If the angle is increased too much, however, the boundary layer is detached from the surface, causing a sudden loss of lift. This is known as a stall, and the angle at which this occurs for an airfoil of a particular shape is known as the stall angle.

Induced drag

The airfoil is a two-dimensional section of the wing. The length of the wing in the third dimension, out to the side, is known as the span of the wing. At the wing tip at the end of the span, the high-pressure flow below the wing meets the low-pressure flow above the wing, causing air to move up and around in wing-tip vortices. These vortices are shed as the plane moves forward, creating a downward force, or downwash, behind it. The downwash makes the air stream tilt downward and the resulting lift force tilts backward so that a net backward force, or drag, is created on the wing. This is known as induced drag or drag due to lift. About one-third of the drag on a modern airliner is induced drag.

Stability and control

In addition to lift and drag, the stability and control of an aircraft in all three dimensions is important since an aircraft, unlike a car, is completely surrounded by air. Various control devices on the tail and wing are used to achieve this situation. Ailerons, for instance, control rolling motion by increasing lift on one wing and decreasing lift on the other.

Supersonic flight

Flight at speeds greater than that of sound are supersonic. Near a Mach number of one, some portions of the flow are at speeds below that of sound, while other portions move faster than sound. The range of speeds from Mach number 0.8 to 1.2 is known as transonic. Flight at Mach numbers greater than five is hypersonic.

The compressibility of air becomes an important aerodynamic factor at these high speeds. The reason for this is that sound waves are transmitted through the successive compression and expansion of air. The compression due to a sound wave from a supersonic aircraft does not have a chance to get away before the next compression begins. This pile up of compression creates a shock wave, which is an abrupt change in pressure, density, and temperature. The shock wave causes a steep increase in the drag and loss of stability of the aircraft. Drag due to the shock wave is known as

Sidebar: HideShow


Airfoil—The cross-section of an airplane wing parallel to the length of the plane.

Angle of attack—The angle that the length of the airfoil forms with the oncoming air stream.

Camber—The additional curvature of the upper surface of the airfoil relative to the lower surface.

Induced drag or drag due to lift—The drag on the airplane due to vortices on the wingtips created by the same mechanism that produces lift.

Similarity parameter—A number used to characterize a flow and compare flows in different situations.

Stall—A sudden loss of lift on the airplane wing when the angle of attack increases beyond a certain value known as the stall angle.

Supersonic—Refers to bodies moving at speeds greater than the speed of sound (not normally involved in the study of acoustics).

Wave drag—Drag on the airplane due to shock waves that are produced at speeds greater than sound.

wave drag. The familiar sonic boom is heard when the shock wave touches the surface of the Earth.

Temperature effects also become important at transonic speeds. At hypersonic speeds above a Mach number of five, the heat causes nitrogen and oxygen molecules in the air to break up into atoms and form new compounds by chemical reactions. This changes the behavior of the air, and the simple laws relating pressure, density, and temperature become invalid.

The need to overcome the effects of shock waves has been a formidable problem. Swept-back wings have helped to reduce the effects of shock. The supersonic Concorde that cruised at Mach 2 and several military airplanes have delta-shaped or triangular wings. The supercritical airfoil designed by Richard Whitcomb of the NASA Langley Laboratory has made airflow around the wing much smoother and has greatly improved both the lift and drag at transonic speeds. It has only a slight curvature at the top and a thin trailing edge. There have been several hypersonic aerospace planes proposed in the United States, which would fly partly in air and partly in space. If ever flown, it would travel from Washington, D.C. to Tokyo within two hours. The Page 62  |  Top of Articlechallenge for aerodynamicists is to control the flight of the aircraft so that it does not burn up like a meteor as it enters the atmosphere at several times the speed of sound. The last proposed aerospace plane was the X-30 National Aero-Space Plane (NASP), which was cancelled in 1993, after failing to overcome various technical and budgetary problems. Since then, an unmanned X-43 Hyper-X program has been developed. As an unmanned version of the X-30, the X-43 is an experimental hypersonic craft that is part of NASA’s Hyper-X program. After tests in 2004, NASA scientists predicted that it would probably take another two decades to develop a two-stage hypersonic vehicle that could carry humans to space and then land on a runway.

See also Airship ; Balloon .



Anderson, John David. Fundamentals of Aerodynamics. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2007.

Barnard, R. H. Aircraft Flight: A Description of the Physical Principles of Aircraft Flight. New York: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004.

Hanks, David A. American Streamlined Design: The World of Tomorrow. Paris, France: Flammarion, 2005.

Leishman, J. Gordon. Principles of Helicopter Aerodynamics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Stinton, Darrol. The Design of the Airplane. Reston, VA: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Blackwell Science, 2001.


Vuillermoz, P. “Importance of Turbulence for Space Launchers.” Journal of Turbulence 3, no. 1 (2002): 56.

Wesson, John. “On the Eve of the 2002 World Cup, John Wesson Examines the Aerodynamics of a Football and Explains how the Ball Can Bend as It Travels Through the Air.” Physics World 15, no.5 (2002): 41-46.

Sreela Datta

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition) 
"Aerodynamics." The Gale Encyclopedia of Science, edited by K. Lee Lerner and Brenda Wilmoth Lerner, 4th ed., vol. 1, Gale, 2008, pp. 58-62. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 26 June 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2830100047

View other articles linked to these index terms:

Page locators that refer to this article are not hyper-linked.